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Chichester Festival 2007 - Preview

Preview by David Munro

LAST year’s Chichester Festival was a great occasion – and this year’s promises to be even better!

To start with, there’s Patrick Stewart in two diverse Shakespearian roles, Peter Bowles in a sparkling Anouilh comedy/farce, David Suchet in a new thriller, Patricia Routledge in an Alan Bennett double bill, John Savident in Hobson’s Choice (a part he was born to play) and Mark Rylance’s attempt to ascertain the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

This year’s musical is a bright and breezy Rodgers and Hart gem, Babes in Arms, and to put the crown on the season a revival of last year’s brilliant b>Nicholas Nickleby

The season opens with Patricia Routledge in Office Suite (pictured) – a double bill of two plays that Alan Bennett wrote for her to play on television.

In the first – A Visit From Miss ProtheroM – Mr Dodsworth, a widower, is four months into his retirement as the head of his department and blissfully happy making pottery ashtrays and attending Cordon Bleu cookery classes.

His comfortable evening is interrupted by an unexpected call from Miss Prothero, a spinster of uncertain age. By the end of her visit she has managed to puncture his balloon of contentment and leaves him tearful and alone.

The second piece, Green Forms, is pure comedy, even farce, depicting as it does two clerk typists whose way of work in the office is to avoid it and pass the buck whenever possible.

Two plays which allow Miss Routledge to run the full gamut of her dramatic skills.

The second production is a World Premiere, The Last Confession, in which David Suchet plays a Cardinal caught up in the hushed mystery surrounding the sudden death of Pope John Paul 1 just 33 days after being elected.

This sound a most appropriate plot for television’s Poirot!

The musical Babes In Arms is next. This was written in 1937 when Rodgers and Hart were at the height of their powers and popularity.

It was conceived after they saw a group of children playing in the park, making up their own games and rules, and they wondered what would happen if the children were suddenly given adult responsibilities such as having to make a living – one way might be to put on a big benefit – so Babes in Arms was born.

The plot follows the idea through… The babes are children of Vaudeville performers who, to save themselves from being sent to a work farm while their parents are on tour, produce a musical revue which is a flop.

Later, the publicity they achieve by interviewing a French Pilot enables them to put on a successful show and open their own youth centre.

The show is full of well-known and enchanting songs, including My Funny Valentine, Where or When, the title song, All At Once, Johnny One Note and the famous The Lady Is A Tramp. It gives ample opportunity for humour and dance.

It should be well suited to Chichester’s open stage particularly as the director is Martin Connor, well experienced with musicals and who directed the show previously at The Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre.

Patrick Stewart follows in his two Shakespearian roles – Macbeth and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, both directed by Philip Franks (co-director of Nicholas Nickleby).

Patrick Stewart may be best known for his roles in Star Trek and the X-Men movies but he started his career and made his name as a Shakespearian actor and, indeed, this year he has been successfully playing the role of Antony to Harriet Walters’ Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Over the years, he has played many diverse roles on stage, television and films including many comedy parts so these two plays give one the chance to see both sides of his acting skills.

The next play is a translation by Ranjit Bolt of Jean Anouilh’s bitter-sweet comedy/farce Waltz Of The Toreadors with Peter Bowles as General St Pe, a lecherous old General with a more or less bed ridden wife, trying to write his memoirs, who is visited by a lady from his past.

Her efforts to re-awaken an old flame of passion and the wife’s efforts to quench it while the General and his illegitimate son are caught in the middle constitute the basis of this very French play.

After France comes Salford, and one of England’s great comedies, Hobson’s Choice.

John Savident plays the overbearing shoemaker, Hobson, with a strong-minded daughter who defeats his plans to dominate herself and her sisters and whose own plans for her future result in the eponymous Hobson’s choice.

John Savident is another actor whose work is grounded in theatre rather than television and his performance as the equally blustering and overbearing butcher, the late Fred Elliot of Coronation Street, would seem to make him ideal for the part.

The other new play is The Big Secret Live “I am Shakespeare” Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show which centres round a former schoolteacher who questions the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

He finds himself being confronted, via a website chatroom, by the various contestants for the title of author. These include Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford and William Shakespeare himself.

His attempts to interview them are interrupted, amongst other things by a neighbour and the police investigating a body…

This sounds like an archetypal anarchic comedy and is the brainchild of Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (who also plays the ex- schoolmaster) and John Dove.

The season ends with the revival of The Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby parts l and ll the great success of last year which is playing for only 12 performance (six of each part) before going on tour and to Toronto.

Performed by a company of 27 actors and beautifully directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks this is a monumental piece of theatre and well worth seeing (see my b>review of last year’s production) and makes a fitting climax to what would appear to be an outstanding season.

Office Suite: April 12 – May 12, 2007
The Last Confession: April 27 – May 19, 2007
Babes In Arms: – May 29 – June 7, 2007
Macbeth: May 25 – September 1, 2007
Twelfth Night: July 14 – August 31, 2007
The Waltz of the Toreadors: June 16 – August 4, 2007
Hobson’s Choice: July 27 – September 1, 2007
The Big Secret Live I am Shakespeare: August 14 – September 8, 2007
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: September 10 – 27, 2007

Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.
Evenings: 7.30pm/Mat. Weds or Thurs. & Sat: 2pm.
Chichester Festival Theatre Box Office: 01243 781312.